When members of the team that built the Quetzal-1 CubeSat saw their satellite blast off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2020, it was the culmination of six years of hard work, overcoming financial and personal obstacles, and defying cultural barriers.
This hard work and ingenuity earned the team the CubeSat Delivery Prize through Arizona State University. Interplanetary Initiative. This award is just the latest step in the team’s remarkable journey.
In 2014, a team based in University of the Valley of Guatemala (UVG) decided to undertake an aerospace project despite the lack of infrastructure to do so. There are no graduate aerospace programs in Guatemala and no history of launching small satellites from that country, and there were no industry experts at the university.
Two years before the team decided to build a CubeSat, they started with a more modest CanSat – a simulated satellite the size of a soda can launched a few hundred meters – but they were confident in their ability to see bigger.
“It seemed like a really difficult project. The natural step would have been to choose to make a high-altitude balloon after the CanSat. But we were really confident in the work we did on the CanSat. We were really happy with the results, so we decided to take a higher risk and go for CubeSats,” said Jose Bagur, the project’s hardware manager who was an undergraduate student when the project started.
A CubeSat is a class of miniature satellites roughly the size of a loaf of bread.
The team started working on the project in different laboratories and in the UVG cafeteria. There was no lab space that could be dedicated to a project like this, so they looked for a place with lots of electrical outlets. Still, morale was high among this first group.
“The first year with the first group of students, we were motivated because we were doing something new and learning a lot,” said Victor Ayerdi, the co-director of the project.
However, as time passed and the possibility of completing the project remained uncertain, recruiting students became more difficult.
“At one point, one of the students said, ‘No, I want to do my graduation project on something that’s going to be done, not something that’s not going to be done.’ There just wasn’t enough motivation to do it because a lot of people didn’t believe it was going to be possible and, to be honest, we couldn’t say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it, we’ll finish’ at that time because it was difficult for us to see the future,” Ayerdi said. “It was like that for three years. After three years it was more and more difficult to continue because the motivation was difficult.
UNOOSA/JAXA KiboCUBE Award Boosts Morale
Two years later, funds to complete the project had also become a challenge. The team began looking for funds in 2016. They attracted a donor who gave $5,000, which barely made a dent in what they needed, and their applications to several other fundraising competitions fell through. . Eventually, their fortunes turned.
“The main reason we were able to continue is that we applied in early 2017 to the KiboCUBE program from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and JAXA,” Ayerdi said. “At that point, after three years of work, we had a design for a CubeSat. It needed a lot of improvements, but we had a design.
“One of the criteria for applying was that the country had never launched a CubeSat into space and did not have the capacity to do so, so we were the ideal candidate. We were selected as winners, and that changed the story of the project because before KiboCUBE, it was difficult for us to convince students that this was going to be possible.
“After we were announced as the winners, we had a waiting list of students who wanted to get involved in the project. It was good because it gave us the credibility that was difficult to have before that.
The Quetzal-1 team makes its message public
The KiboCUBE award gave the team the opportunity to deploy Quetzal-1 from the International Space Station and covered the cost of transporting the satellite to the space station, but money for the CubeSat components was still an issue. They set out to garner public support.
They submitted a series of articles to one of Guatemala’s largest newspapers, Prensa Libre. The newspaper team has given full support to the team, incorporating infographics and multimedia elements into the articles. The team published 55 articles over two years.
“One of the most impactful articles appeared in Women’s Day magazine. We had few women, which happens in engineering, and at that time we realized that we could also use the project to motivate women to study engineering, because even if they were few in the team , maybe 10%, they were really enthusiastic and motivated,” says Ayerdi.
It is also thanks to these publications that the project takes its name. The newspaper held a “Name the Satellite” contest. The winner was a high school student who suggested the name quetzal, which is the national bird of Guatemala and a symbol of goodness and light.
Due to these publications, news of the project reached the British space agency, which offered to cover the costs of some of the tests. The team also received support from several other international and national organizations, and the UVG covered the remaining 30% of the costs.